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"Michaels, one of the most highly regarded contemporary American literary figures and widely read by the discerning ...
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"Michaels, one of the most highly regarded contemporary American literary figures and widely read by the discerning public, has long been regarded as a master of the short story. His stature can only be enhanced by this gathering of the best of his previous work as well as new stories, all of them written within the period of the early 1960s through the 1990s. Love and sexuality are the twin themes he continues to mine, and the specific situations he creates to explore these themes pinpoint in the sheerest of prose the absolute truth about relationships. Michaels's trenchant, direct, and lyrical style, with not one word wasted, works as a tight springboard for conveying his vast knowledge about why we love who we love. No library's short story collection is complete without this career-defining compilation."—Brad Hooper, Booklist
A Girl With a Monkey
In the spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel. They spent two days together, mainly in Beard's room. He took her to restaurants for lunch and dinner. The third day Inger told Beard she needed a break. She had a life before Beard arrived. Now she had only Beard. She reminded him that the city was famous for its cathedral and zoo. "You should go look. There is more to see than Inger Stutz." Besides, she'd neglected her chores, and missed a dental appointment as well as classes in paper restoration at the local museum.
When she mentioned the classes, Beard thought to express interest, ask questions about paper restoration, but he wasn't interested. He said, "You could miss a few more." His tone was glum. He regretted it, but felt justified because she'd hurt his feelings. He'd spent a lot of money on Inger. He deserved better. He wasn't her life, but he'd canceled his plans, and he wouldn't be staying forever. She didn't have to remind him of the cathedral and zoo. Such things had been noted in his travel itinerary by the agent in San Francisco. He also had a travel guide.
Beard had in fact planned to do a lot of sightseeing, but moments after he checked into his hotel there was a knock at the door and he supposed it was a bellhop or chambermaid, and he saw the girl. She was very apologetic and apparently distressed. She'd come to the wrong room. Beard was charmed, not deceived. He invited her in.
Now, the evening of the third day, Beard said, "I don't want to hear about your chores or classes." He would double her fee.
Beard wasn't rich, but he'd inherited money and the court excluded his inheritance from the divorce settlement. It was enough money to let him be expansive, if not extravagant. He'd quit his job in television production in San Francisco and gone to the travel agent. The trip cost plenty, but having met Inger and fallen in love, he was certainly getting value for his money until she said, "Please don't tell me what I could do or could not do. And it isn't a question of money."
The remark was inconsistent with her profession, even if Inger was still young, only a semi-pro, but it was the way she said "could," exactly as Beard had said it, that bothered him. He detected hostility in her imitation, and he was afraid that he'd underestimated Inger, maybe provoked a distaste for his character that was irredeemable.
He'd merely expressed his feelings, merely been sincere, yet somehow offended her. Her reaction was unfair. He did not even know what he'd said that was offensive. Worse yet, he was afraid that he'd established with Inger the same relations he'd had with his ex-wife. In twenty-five years of marriage, she'd had many fits of irrational hostility over his most trivial remarks. Beard could never guess what he might say to make her angry. Now in another country, in love with another woman—a prostitute, no less—Beard was caught up in miseries he'd divorced.
The more things change, he thought, they don't.
Inger knew nothing about Beard's marriage, but she'd heard that one's clients sometimes become attached, and it was hard to get free of them. Beard was only her fifth client. What troubled her particularly was that she'd upset Beard more than she might have expected. He sounded deranged, shouting in the crowded restaurant, "I'll pay double," and slapping the table. How embarrassing. What had the waiter thought? She felt slightly fearful. "You are a sweet man," she said. "Very generous. Many women in Germany would be yours for nothing."
"I prefer to pay for you. Can't you understand?"
She understood but shook her head no, astonished and reproachful at once. "I understand that you are self-indulgent. If I were like you, I would soon become dissolute. My life would be irregular. I would feed my monkey table scraps instead of monkey food, because it gives me pleasure. She would then beg every time I sit down at the dinner table. It would be no good for her or for me."
"I'm not your monkey."
"You think you're more complicated."
Beard was about to smile, but he realized Inger wasn't making a joke. Her statement was flat and profoundly simple. Beard wasn't sure what she intended. Maybe she was asking a question. But it seemed she really saw in Beard what she saw in her monkey, as if all sentient beings were equivalent. She put him in mind of Saint Francis of Assisi.
As had happened several times during his acquaintance with Inger, he was overcome by a sort of mawkish adoration. His eyes glistened. He'd never felt this way about a woman. Spiritual love. At the same time, he had a powerful desire to ravish her. Of course he'd done that repeatedly in the hotel room, in the bed and on the floor, and each time his desire had been satisfied, yet it remained undiminished, unsatisfied.
"Well, what are you, then?" she asked softly.
Beard, surprising himself, said, "I'm a Jew." With a rush of strong and important feeling, it struck him that he was indeed a Jew.
Inger shrugged. "I might have Jewish blood. Who knows about such things?"
Beard had anticipated a more meaningful, more sensitive response. He saw instead, once again, the essential Inger. She was, in her peculiar way, as innocent as a monkey. She had no particular, cultivated sensibility. No idea of history. She was what she was, as if she'd dropped into the world yesterday. A purely objective angelic being. He had her number, he thought. Having her number didn't make him detached. His feelings were no less intense, no less wonderful, and—no other word for it—unsatisfied. She got to him like certain kinds of music. He thought of unaccompanied cello suites.
"Inger," he whispered, "have pity. I'm in love with you."
"Nonsense. I'm not very pretty."
"Yes, you are."
"If that's how you feel ..."
"You feel this now. Later, who knows?"
"Could you feel something for me?"
"I'm not indifferent."
"You may love me."
"You're welcome. But I think ..."
"I'm self, indulgent."
"It's a burden for me."
"I'll learn to be good."
"I applaud this decision."
"When can I see you again?"
"You will pay me what you promised?"
She studied his face, as if to absorb a new understanding, and then, with no reservations in her voice, said, "I will go home tonight. You may come for me tomorrow night. You may come upstairs and meet my roommate."
"Must you go home?"
"I dislike washing my underwear in a bathroom sink."
"I'll wash your underwear."
"I have chores, things I have to do at home. You are frightening me."
"I'll call a taxi."
"No. My bicycle is still at the hotel."
The next morning Beard went to a barber shop and then shopped for a new jacket. So much time remained before he could see Inger. In the afternoon he decided to visit the cathedral, a Gothic structure of dark stone. It thrust up suddenly, much taller than the surrounding houses, on a curved, narrow medieval street. Beard walked around the cathedral, looking at saintly figures carved into the stone. Among them he was surprised by a monkey, the small stone face hideously twisted, shrieking. He couldn't imagine what it was doing there, but the whole cathedral was strange, so solemn and alien amid the ordinary houses along the street.
Men in business suits, students in their school uniforms, and housewives carrying sacks of groceries walked by without glancing at the cathedral. None seemed to have any relation to it, but surely they felt otherwise. They lived in this city. The cathedral was an abiding feature of their landscape, stark and austere, yet complicated in its carvings. Beard walked inside. As he entered the nave, he felt reduced, awed by the space. Most of all, he felt lonely. He felt a good deal, but it struck him that he could never understand the power and meaning of the Christian religion. With a jealous and angry God, Jews didn't need such space for worship. A plain room would do. It would even be preferable to a cathedral, more appropriate to their intimate, domestic connection to the deity, someone they had been known to defy and even to fight until, like Jonah, they collapsed into personal innerness, in agonies and joys of sacred delirium.
Walking back to the hotel, he remembered that Inger had talked about her monkey. The memory stirred him, as he had been stirred in the restaurant, with sexual desire. Nothing could be more plain, more real. It thrust against the front of his trousers. He went into a café to sit for a while and pretend to read a newspaper.
That evening in the hotel room, with his fresh haircut and new jacket, he presented himself to the bathroom mirror. He had once been handsome. Qualities of handsomeness remained in his solid, leonine head, but there were dark sacks under his eyes that seemed to carry years of pain and philosophy. They made his expression vaguely lachrymose. "You are growing the face of a hound," he said to his reflection, but he was brave and didn't look away, and he decided he must compensate for his losses. He must buy Inger a present, something new and beautiful, a manifestation of his heart.
In a jewelry store window in the hotel lobby, he noticed a pair of gold earrings set with rubies like tiny globules of blood. Obviously expensive. Much too expensive for his travel budget, but he entered the store and asked what they cost, though he knew it was a mistake to ask. He was right. The price was even higher than he had guessed. It was nearly half of his inheritance. Those earrings plus the cost of the trip would leave him barely enough money to pay his rent in San Francisco, and he didn't have a job waiting for him when he returned.
He left the store and walked about the streets looking in other store windows. Every item that caught his attention was soon diminished by his memory of the swirl of gold and the impassioned red glob within.
Those earrings were too expensive. An infuriating price. It had been determined by a marketing demon, thought Beard, because the earrings now haunted him. He grew increasingly anxious as minutes passed and he continued walking the streets, pointlessly looking into shop windows, unable to forget the earrings.
He was determined not to return to the jewelry store, but then he let himself think: if he returned to the store only to look at the earrings—not to buy them—they would be gone. So it was too late to buy the earrings, he thought, as he hurried back to the store. To his relief, they were still there and more beautiful than he remembered.
The salesperson was a heavily made-up woman in her fifties who wore a black, finely pleated silk dress and gold-rimmed eyeglasses. She approached and stood opposite Beard at the glass counter. He looked down strictly at a necklace, not the earrings, though only a little while ago he'd asked her the price of the earrings. She wasn't fooled. She knew what he wanted. Without being asked, she withdrew the earrings from their case and put them on the counter. Beard considered this highly impertinent, but he didn't object. As if making a casual observation, she said, "I've never seen earrings like these before. I'm sure I'll never see any like these again."
"They're much too expensive."
"Do you think so?" She looked away toward the street, apparently uninterested in his opinion. It was late afternoon, nearly closing time. Her indifference to Beard's remark annoyed him.
"Too expensive," he said, as if he didn't really want the earrings but was inviting her to haggle.
"Should I put them away?" she asked.
Beard didn't answer.
"They are expensive, I suppose," she said. "But prices fluctuate. If you like, I'll keep your business card and phone you if the earrings aren't sold in a few weeks."
Beard heard contempt in her voice, as if she were saying the point of jewelry is to be expensive, even too expensive. He drew his wallet slowly from his jacket pocket, and then, with a thrill of suicidal exultation, he slapped his credit card, not his business card, on the glass beside the earrings. She plucked it up, stepped away, and ran the card through a machine. He signed the receipt quickly to disguise the tremor in his hand.
When he arrived at Inger's apartment house, his heart was beating powerfully. He felt liberated, exceedingly happy, and slightly sick. He planned to take Inger to a fine restaurant. He'd done so before. She'd seemed not the least impressed, but tonight, after dinner, he would give her the earrings. The quality of the light in the restaurant, the delicious food, the wine, the subtle ministrations of the staff—such things matter. The earrings would intensify the occasion. She would be impressed, even if she didn't think precisely like a whore. Besides, it would matter to Beard.
A woman in a short skirt opened the door. She was older than Inger, and had cold violet eyes. Her black hair was cut level with her ears and across into severe, straight bangs, emphasizing her hard thin-lipped expression. She looked somehow damaged and petrified by her beauty. Beard introduced himself. The woman said she was Greta Matti, Inger's roommate, then said, "Inger is gone."
"It is possible," said Greta, her lips briefly, unpleasantly curled. Beard understood that Greta disliked being contradicted, but he didn't believe her. The woman was malicious.
"She took her monkey," she said. "Please go look for yourself. No clothes in her closet, no suitcase, no bicycle."
Greta turned back into the apartment. Beard entered behind her and looked where she gestured toward a room, and then followed her into it. Closets and drawers were empty. There was nothing, no sign of human presence. Stunned by the emptiness, Beard felt he himself had been emptied.
"You never know a person," said Greta. "She seemed so shy and studious, but she must have done something criminal. I was an idiot to let her move in, a girl with a monkey. Half the time it was I who fed the beast. The telephone never stopped ringing."
Beard followed Greta to the kitchen. A teapot had been set on a small table with a cup and saucer.
"Where did she go?" he said. He didn't expect a positive, useful answer. Who would disappear like that and leave an address? But what else could he say?
"You are not the first to ask. I don't know where she comes from or where she went. Would you like a cup of tea?"
Greta sat at the table and turned slightly toward Beard. She crossed her legs. It was clear that she didn't plan to stand up again to get another cup and saucer, and she seemed merely to assume Beard would stay. Her legs, he couldn't not notice, were long, naked, and strikingly attractive in high heels. He glanced at the white flesh of her inner thigh and felt humbled and uncomfortable.
Greta poured tea for herself without waiting for his answer, and took a sip. Did she think her legs gave him enough? He wanted to ask questions, perhaps learn something about Inger. He knew hardly anything about her.
"I'm sorry," said Greta, softening a little. "Her disappearance is very inconvenient for me. Perhaps it is worse for you."
Beard nodded. "Does Inger owe you money?"
"Technically, I owe her money. She paid a month in advance. I can make another cup of tea."
Beard was inclined to say yes. He needed company, but the whiteness of Greta's legs had become unbearable; repulsively carnal. He couldn't not look at them.
"Thank you," he said. "I must go."
Beard found a phone directory in a bar, looked up the address of the museum, and then hailed a taxi. He'd remembered that Inger took classes in paper restoration. They were given in the evening. At the museum, an administrator told him that Inger had quit the program. Beard next went to the restaurants where they had gone together. He didn't expect to find her in any of them. To his painful disappointment, it was just as he expected. He returned to the hotel. Inger's bicycle was no longer in the lobby where it had been propped against a wall for two days. Its absence made him feel the bleakness of the marble floor, the sterility of the potted plants beside the desk, the loneliness of hotel lobbies.
In his room, Beard unwrapped the earrings and set them under the lamp on the night table. He studied the earrings with grim fascination, as if to penetrate their allure, the mystery of value. It came to him that, after creating the universe, God saw it was good. "So what is good about it?" Beard asked himself. He smoked cigarette after cigarette, and felt tired and miserable, a condition long associated with thought.
The earrings, shining on the night table, told him nothing. They looked worthless. But it was value—the value of anything aside from life itself—that Beard thought about. As for life itself, he assumed its value was unquestionable because he hadn't ever wanted to kill himself. Not even this minute when he felt so bad. Before he went to sleep, Beard read a train schedule and set the alarm on his travel clock.
At noon he checked out of his hotel, wearing his new jacket, and went to a restaurant where he ordered a grand lunch. He refused to suffer. He ate the lunch assiduously, though without pleasure, and then he took a taxi to the train station. The ticket he bought was first class, another luxurious expense, but he wanted—angrily—to pamper himself, or, as Inger would say, to be "self-indulgent."
As the train pulled out of the station, Beard slid the compartment door shut and settled beside the window with a collection of colorful, expensive magazines that he'd bought in the station. The magazines were full of advertisements for expensive things. Almost every page flared with brilliant color, and they crackled sensuously. They smelled good, too. He stared at pictures of nearly naked models and tried to feel desire. Exactly for what he couldn't say. It wasn't their bodies. Maybe it was for the future, more experience, more life. Then he reached into his jacket pocket to get his cigarettes and the earrings, intending to look at them again and resume his engagement with deep thought. He felt his cigarettes, but the earrings weren't in his pocket. Nor were they in any other pocket.
Beard knew instantly that he needn't bother to search his pockets, which he did repeatedly, because he remembered putting the earrings on the night table and he had no memory of picking them up. Because he hadn't picked them up. He knew. He knew.
As the train left the city and gained speed, he quit searching his pockets. Oh God, why had he bought the earrings? How could he have been so stupid? In an instant of emotional lunacy, he'd slapped his credit card down in the jewelry store and undone himself. The earrings were a curse, in some way even responsible for Inger's disappearance. He had to get hold of himself, think realistically, practically. He had to figure out what to do about retrieving them.
It was urgent that he communicate with the hotel. Perhaps he could send a telegram from the train, or from the next station. He would find a conductor. But really, as he thought further about it, he decided it wasn't urgent to communicate with the hotel. It was a good hotel. This was Germany, not America. Nobody would steal his earrings. They would soon follow him to his destination, another good hotel. They were not gone forever. He had nothing to worry about. This effort to reassure himself brought him almost to tears. He wanted desperately to retrieve the earrings. He stood up and went to the door. About to slide it open and look for a conductor, he heard a knock. He slid the door open with a delirious expectation. The conductor would be there, grinning, the earrings held forth in his open hand. Beard stared into the face of Inger.
"Hello," he said, in a gentle, reproachful voice.
She said, looking at his eyes, her expression bewildered and yet on the verge of recognition, "I'm so sorry. I must have the wrong—" and then she let go of her suitcase and said, "Gott behüte!" The suitcase hit the floor with a thud and bumped the side of her leg.
Beard said, "Inger," and he didn't think so much as feel, with an odd little sense of gratification, that she wasn't very pretty. There was a timeless, silent moment in which they stared at each other and his feelings collected. The moment gave Beard a chance to see Inger exactly as she was: a slender, pale girl with pensive gray eyes whose posture was exceptionally straight. She made an impression of neatness, correctness, and youth. In this access of plain reality, he felt no anger and no concern for the earrings. As he could now see, they would look absurd on the colorless Inger. He felt only that his heart was breaking, and there was nothing he could do about it.
With a slow, uncertain smile, Inger said, "How are you?"
Beard picked up her suitcase. "You always travel first class?"
"It depends on the gentleman who answers the door."
"I'm very pretty," she said, her tone sweet and tentative and faintly self-mocking.
"I don't think so."
"I'm sure of it."
He put her suitcase onto the seat strewn with magazines. Then he took her hand, drew her toward him, and slid the door shut behind her. She said, "Please. Do give me a moment," but she didn't resist when he pressed her to the floor, his knee between her thighs. Her gray eyes were noncommittal and vast as the world. Beard raised up on his knees to undo his trousers and then he removed Inger's sandals. He kissed her feet and proceeded to lick her legs and slide her skirt to her hips. Then he hooked the crotch of her underpants with an index finger and drew them to the side and he licked her until she seized his hair with her fists and pulled him up, needing him inside as much as he needed her. He whispered, "I love you," his mouth against her neck, and he shut his eyes in a trance of pleasure and thrust into her, in her clothes, as the train pressed steadily into a mute and darkening countryside.
|A Girl with a Monkey||5|
|In the Fifties||63|
|Reflections of a Wild Kid||107|
|Tell Me Everything||147|
|Viva la Tropicana||195|